As I have previous professed, for me Wilco are one of the best bands operating at the moment. Since I first got hold of their Mermaid Avenue collaboration with Billy Bragg, I tracked back and forth through their output, sucking it all up until I had it all. As a relatively late adopter, I had less of the undying love for the "alt.country" end of things, and for me A Ghost Of Born was the ultimate conclusion of where a band like this was going, leaving me to wonder where they would be heading next.
While Kidsmoke, Hell Is Chrome and the other big show-off tracks on A Ghost Of Born steal the show, they also tend to over-shadow some superb numbers that pop up later in the album, such as Theologians, Late Greats or Company In My Back. With sixth studio album Sky Blue Sky things are on a much more even keel, making for a more subtle record that is beautifully crafted and full of hidden treasure.
Forget the Fleetwood Mac comparisons you might have heard, The Band are your homework reference for this album, with superb musicianship pulling from all sides to make an apparently simple track like You Are My Face into a musical masterpiece - winding up from ballad to multi-part guitar duel, or to transform the opener Either Way from a sunny-weather ditty to an all-out majestic finale, complete with a string section. Great talent brings great responsibility however, and unfortunately the album suffers from some of the same pitfalls as The Band's work from Stage Fright onwards - with the undoubtedly excellent musicianship sometimes falling short of the emotion needed for it to engage the listener as A Ghost Is Born did - which I suspect may be down to a Iack of trouble in Wilcoworld at the moment. If only Tweedy could get back on the painkillers.
But fear not, Wilco are still a long way from a Steely Dan's sometimes unapproachable studio tan style. The glib opening line of Impossible Germany ("...unlikely Japan") is quickly forgiven as it morphs off into a six minute guitar monster. And if you do find yourself waiting for that trademark emotional crack in Tweedy's vocals, don't worry - that comes soon enough on title track Sky Blue Sky: "It's good enough for now..."
Man of the match definitely goes to new signing Nels Cllne, who takes the guitar standards of Wilco's previous records to epic new heights. As a former free-wheeling jazz guitarist he has added guitar to projects by Mike Watt, Stephen Perkins' Banyan, Thurston Moore and others - as well as releasing some notable, if meandering solo work (I've seen him live, and had the sore improv jazz buttocks to prove it). Kept on a tight leash by Tweedy's songwriting, which often reins him in, Nels Cline excels - adding a multitude of guitar highlights, from the crisp Stevie Ray Vaughn-esqe solo that rounds off opener Either Way, to the pyrotechnics that take Side With The Seeds from it's deceptively soulful opening to it's barnstorming finale.
Sure, there are a couple of more forgettable tracks, but the power hidden behind the laid back effortlessness of this album will be fully revealed live and I have no doubt that it is only going to get better and better. I'd even go so far as to wager that after seeing this record played live, the track about Jeff cleaning the house (Hate It Here) may be a late favourite. We'll see.
The bottom line is that this is a top-flight band working at the top of their game. On the surface it may seem to have the stumbling style of fan favourite Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but when listened to next that album it is a far more complex affair. While it might not have the more overt scene-stealing sonic theatrics of the Jim O'Rourke influenced A Ghost Is Born, beneath the surface there are more than a few nods in that direction - notably on the fantastic closing track On And On And On, where the guitar is pipped to the post at the final hurdle by Mikael Jorgensen's keyboards. His Garth Hudson-style Hammond organ adds a steady stream of quality input throughout the album, but on On And On And On it is thrust into the limelight and carries the album home, bringing it back from a minor lull to finish magnificently.
This is a superbly rich record, taking the huge range of previous Wilco output and creaming off the best of all their albums and shaping it into a rich and polished career overview. There is a fluidity, solidity and cohesiveness here that make it an accomplished delight.